21-May-2008

Survival guide for the Single woman

warning - long post

As a tween, teenager, twenty year-old, whenever I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I could immediately identify myself with Elizabeth . It turned out I was not the only one. Almost every girl who read the book did not want to be the pretty and nice (boring?) Jane. For obvious reasons, no one could even think of themselves as one of Elizabeth ’s other sisters. It sounded good, being rude to Mr Darcy and then having him fall for you hook, line and sinker. Especially when he was tall and handsome (a memory that only got enhanced by Colin Firth’s portrayal in the BBC series) and had class and lots of money. Ah, perfect life.

Sadly, I turned twenty seven, without seeing Mr Darcy in the horizon and began to notice the much ignored Charlotte . Charlotte was blessed with average looks, brains, some family money and overall a decent personality (After all she was Elizabeth ’s friend). Unfortunately she chooses to marry the insufferable Mr Collins. When Elizabeth visits her house later on, Charlotte makes it fairly clear that the marriage has not brought her any joy in terms of companionship but she is grateful for the comfort of a home it has given her. With some careful maneuvering, she ensures that she and Mr Collins don’t spend much of their time in the same room. Even reading about Charlotte makes one want to cry.

Yet, why is it then that every Indian girl who has reached the magical Charlotte age of twenty seven, so keen on marrying, even if it is Mr. Collins ?

Maybe the answers lie in the Indian society of the last generation, which is not substantially different from the English society of the novel. The operative words being ‘the last generation’.

We grew up watching our aunts, older cousins and sundry female relatives tread the path of holy matrimony, when they turned the right age. The unfortunate few who did not find a mate were consigned to the jobs of being teachers and staying with their brothers after their fathers died. Or becoming hostel wardens. Or (gulp) came to a Bad End, having fallen under the clutches of evil men who exploited ‘frustrated’ older single women. I cannot recollect a single woman who stayed by herself, had a career and had a life.

My generation has it better. More women were getting into professional courses and the average middle class family expects its daughters to study, as much it does its sons. You can even have careers that are more demanding than being a primary school teacher. Yet, when the golden age of 25 has been reached without a groom in sight, it is panic time. Panic among parents, the extended family, friends of the family, triggering off a panic attack in the girl till she agrees to marry the first bloke who comes along. If he turns out to be Collins, so be it. But atleast she has the comfort of holy matrimony.

No one stops to question this logic, least of the girl – Is marriage at the ‘right’ age still so important that you marry Collins? After having worked hard to get into schools, colleges and jobs you deserve, is it necessary to settle down for less when it comes to marriage? We seem to be producing more women engineers, MBAs and all other professionals than before. But when it comes to marriage, it is time for the blinkers to come and follow the sell-by date set by some vague society standards.

And when this happens, the few who hold out, either out of choice or compulsion, suddenly realize they are clueless about what to do next.

You had enough classmates around you, preparing for GMAT or cracking the CAT. You had friends who feverishly discussed their preferred first jobs with you. Then, bang, all of them get married and lead a very different life from you. You have neither role models, nor peer groups to get a cue from. What next?

Well, I would think, maybe it is time to think. For the first time in your life, here is a chance to be yourself. Finally you don’t have a peer group that tells you what you ought to be doing now. You are not married at 25. This automatically means, you don’t have to have a kid at 27, buy a house at 28 and have a second kid at 30. Alright maybe the bit about the house is not true. But we will come to that later. Instead of constantly moaning about how you must be the most unattractive person on earth, and how you will die being eaten by Alsatians, here is the time to do all the things that you were good at or interested in – travel, dance, sing, write poetry, take Spanish classes, learn animation, do photography, volunteer at a primary school. The list is practically endless. You have the time and money to do what you want. It is a tragedy of human race that when we are given the opportunity to have all the adventures we want, instead of grabbing it with open hands and letting loose our imagination, we cry in anguish at having missed out on joining the stereotype.

So, your parents and peer group are aghast and keep asking you when your ‘real’ life is going to start. Maybe it is time to turn around and say that this is your real life and it does sound more interesting at times. The problem with the definition of ‘real’ life is that it usually means ‘all of us are doing it. So we must be right’. Which means pampering husbands and producing babies is real life. But climbing mountains and rappelling down them is not (Boy, don’t you ever go around thinking that is not real. It is as real as it gets. Especially when you look down).

There are of course the immediate problems – who do you travel with, who do you go for a movie with, what if you want to have a random coffee? This is where it is time to remind yourself the differences between the last generation and this. There are enough travel groups you can go with and women-only travel groups if you please. Unlike the last generation when being single meant you were ostracized from the average middle-class society, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that once your friends recover from the initial flush of marriage, they are more than happy to hang out with you. And really, watching a movie or drinking coffee alone is not something you will be shot for.

Enjoy being yourself. You are more interesting than you think.

The other funny thing which the unmarried twenty-seven years old do is to ignore their careers. Somewhere deep down you think that your time will come anytime now – should I really take that transfer when six months down the line I could be asking for another transfer if I get married? I hate my job but do I really want to quit when six months down the line I anyway have to quit when I move to the U.S. ? Wake up, girls. If there is no one in sight, then maybe it is a bit silly to plan your life around an unpredictable event? Firstly, being married is not the ‘big change’ to do course correction in your jobs. If you think you need to do it, then the sooner you do it the better. Secondly, you have reached where you have after putting in a lot of effort. If you don’t respect that, no one else is going to. Including your boss who will decide your pay and the guy who shows up to ‘have coffee with you’. And finally, so what if you moved jobs just now and decide to move again when you get married? This is hardly the day and age of ‘permanent’ jobs in PSUs. Instead of one job change this year, you have two. Big deal.

Don’t ignore your career. It is going to be around for most part of your life.

And while we are it, I may as well add about the house. Savings and finances infact. For some reason, being single automatically dissuades women from investing in shares, opening FDs or acquiring property. This is yet another hangover from the last generation, where most women held onto low-paying jobs till they got married or anyway had jobs that would not be enough to put food on the table. Today, a lot of us earn enough to support ourselves and more. So perhaps it is time to be grown-up about money. So you do get married two years down the line. What do you expect? Your husband to manage your overdue credit card bills and exploding wardrobe? If you end up meeting someone who cashed out totally in the last internet boom or inherited tons of family wealth, then life is good. But more likely, he is also a hardworking guy in a normal job and fiscal responsibility is something that you both bring to the table?

Money is good. Single or married.

I must confess that for all the talk on how it is time to look inward and doing things that you most want, it is not easy being the odd one out in a group. Whenever you meet up with your friends (all married), you look on while they indulge in couple talk and act. Yet, step back for a minute and think of how it would be if the situation were switched. You won’t be the one feeling like an aberration. So maybe it is good to make new friends who are single too? You made new friends when you went from school to college, when you shifted house, when you found a job. Yet, when our current friends move onto a different phase of life, we hanker to get into that phase, rather than find people who are in the same phase of life as us. Maybe you are not ready to get married but you still do since everybody around you is?

It is not that difficult making friends as you grow older. It is just that we are in fewer situations where we meet new people. Remedying that is easier done than said. Two years after I moved to Chennai, I was still wallowing in the ‘I have no friends’ syndrome. Then I joined a series of classes – aerobics, dance and eventually Salsa, and now some of my best friends are from that bunch. This is more than I expected (touch wood). But really, what you are looking out for is not ‘best friends’. Just someone who can go for a movie with you. Or someone who can meet you for a brief coffee.

Having alteast some friends who are like you is important.

And I am not even going to end by saying that like a muse who appears when you are looking out for it not directly but through the corner of your eye, the right guy will appear when you are busy leading your life and not made searching for him the mission of your life. For some of us, it could happen and that is great. For some of us, being alone may work out best. But then, that has been my point all along.

You don’t have to be Elizabeth or Charlotte. You can just be you, perhaps?

18-May-2008

Movie Review - Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian

Friday nights always demand some activity that is soft enough to not burn your brains after a long work week, yet does not involve slumping over the couch in your house watching whatever is on offer on TV. Which is how, having gone for Iron Man with a colleague and finding that show timings had changed, I ended up watching Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian.

I have not read the series nor have I seen part 1. So cannot comment on whether the book is better than the movie nor give a context. But unlike a Lord of the Rings where the plot complications are such, it is difficult to make a brilliant movie no matter how good the special effects, I have been informed that this series is fairly simpler and lends itself to easier adaptation. At any rate, what emerged at the end was a good children’s fantasy that took me right back to the days of Enid Blyton and the like

The four children who originally found Narnia are ‘called’ back again after a year. Except that in the magical world of Narnia, many thousand years have passed and many changes have been wrought. The animals are wild and no longer speak, the trees have stopped moving, man and creatures of the forest don’t live in peace (in other words, the world has started resembling normal cities). The Telmarines rule, with the proxy king Miraz at the helm. When a son is born to Miraz, he immediately decides to dispose off the rightful heir, the young and dashing Prince Caspian. Caspian escapes and must get his throne back and bring peace onto the land like the good old days.

I can’t remember the last time I read books where young kids had weighty responsibilities resting on their shoulders. The storyline revolves a lot around being brave, and responsible and kind. No matter how bad the odds, good will always triumph over evil. All creatures of the earth have their place in the world and should not be disrespected. An Age of Innocence is evoked and is evoked rather well till you forget that you are no longer ten and will have to step into the realities of life once the movie is over. You simply sit and watch curiously as the kids face their own human foibles and eventually go back to the basic DNA of Narnia’s existence to bring everlasting (or till the next instalment) peace.

And then there are the special effects. The biggest grouse when you read a fantasy book is that the big screen does not quite capture the walking tree or the enormous palace in quite the same way as you had it in your mind. Not having read the book, I did not have a preconceived notion of what everything should look like. But boy, these things are getting closer to your imagination with every passing movie. Meshing together animated animals, dwarves, centaurs, moving trees and a furious river is not an easy task but the movie does manage it.

A good movie to watch if you want to a quick flashback into your childhood fantasy world.

15-May-2008

Dreaming on


I woke up with a start. My phone was ringing. My mom’s life-size hologram had already begun to make a faint appearance by my bedside. She started to talk about some cousin, all the while flickering in and out.

And then it slowly began to occur to me that we don’t yet live in a world of holographic communication. It was a dream.

The part of me which told me it was a dream also reminded me that it was time for office. I dragged myself to the toilets. It was completely overrun with water. I could not curse the bai enough for being sloppy when it comes to cleaning.

Wait a minute. The last time I had to contend with messy Indian-style toilets was back in school. It was a dream

My brain pushed on, constantly reminding me that I was really running late for work for now. I ran to my wardrobe to pick out the days clothes. Chose a plain light blue chiffon saree.

Plain light blue chiffon saree... I don’t own a plain light blue chiffon saree and I would certainly not go to office in something like this. It was a dream.

The alarm rang and I woke up. The curtain fluttered gently where the window was open. The phone lay on top of the three books piled by my bedside. My legs had still not got the message that it was time to be up and lay heavy even as I twisted myself to check the time. This felt real.

But have you ever woken up from a dream just to realise you are still in a dream. And this goes on as an endless loop for sometime? Weird.

12-May-2008

Byculla Zoo story

Of all the surreal experiences I have had, going for a morning walk in a zoo must be right there on top. I had volunteered sometime ago to accompany a friend for morning walks. So every once in a while, I would find myself exploring the unknown frontiers of Mumbai (or atleast unknown to me. There is nothing like an undiscovered place in Mumbai). Yesterday, the chosen venue was the Byculla Zoo. I had read up on the place and most reports were quite discouraging. The Zoo’s animals apparently lead a sad existence, shackled in cages too small for them. Various Animal Rights groups were trying to get them transferred to a bigger place, somewhere in the outskirts. Builder groups were obviously happy with this suggestion since it meant land being freed in a prime area. However, as the gardens inside the Zoo are classified as botanical gardens, environmentalists were none too happy at closing the place down. In the midst of all this, the Zoo continues its existence.

Searching for the place took some time. Especially since we kept asking people directions to ‘Jija mata Udyan’ like good Sainiks. The local name was however, ‘Rani Baug’ from the time it used to be called the more anglicized ‘Victoria Gardens ’.

Neighbourhood uncles and aunties were already doing their stretches when we presented ourselves to the watchman at the gate. It turned out we needed passes to enter. Quickly spinning a story about being tourists on the last day of the Mumbai garden tour, we convinced the watchman to let us through.

The gardens were very well maintained. The lawns were mowed and someone definitely swept the place regularly. The statues were slightly rundown though, with bird droppings turning the black to a runny grey. Every now and then, we would turn a corner and come upon a bough or a small shelter or an ancient rambling bungalow in which the caretakers lived. The strange part was we had still not seen a single animal in any of the cages. They were fast asleep somewhere inside. Clearly, years of staying in Mumbai had had a bad influence on natural instincts and by the time, the animals began to stir it was already seven forty five.

The first wild animal we spotted was the Hippopotamus. An ancient specimen, this one’s hide looked green from what looked like moss. An enthusiastic grandfather was holding his granddaughter up against the fence and screaming out friendly ‘Good Mornings’ to the Hippo. I was almost expecting a musical where grandpa, grandchild and Hippo would burst into synchronized dance steps. Except Hippo was in no mood to oblige and snorted and ran towards the fence. I knew there was a moat around the Hippo’s area. Still, it is quite disconcerting to see someone the size of a small car hurtling towards you. I jumped back and turned to see the grandpa still bravely standing his ground and persistently yelling ‘Good Morning’. Better him than me.

The next inmate to come alive was a bear. Frisking in his tiny bathtub, the bear looked utterly happy. And utterly huge. He gambolled across his enclosure to climb a tree where another bear was perched. From there, we wandered past the tiny cage of the sleeping and emaciated leopard, the hidden hyena and the restless elephants.

As a kid, I have been to zoos and I don’t remember exactly how the experience felt. However, trying to do power walking in the morning when a bear is stretching himself to your right and a hippo is stampeding to your left does not really feel normal. As the zoo began to stir to life, I began to become more and more conscious of how small the moats looked. A particularly energetic animal would be able to make a leap to freedom without much effort. Especially if it had to settle scores with enthusiastic grandfathers early in the morning. I had had enough and it was time to leave.

The zoo was a discovery though. Barely ten minutes from townside offices, it is actually a great place to step out for a quick picnic lunch and a walk in better weather. Also, once you get used to the idea of wild animals all around you in the middle of a well populated city, the walk is quite nice. Of course, this being Mumbai, I am not sure how many of the blinkered citizens have realized this walking destination.

Update

A friend of mine tells me that the Rhino in the Byculla Zoo has been the subject of some controversy. The only newspaper article I could find on the topic told the Rhino was rather lonesome (27 years as a singleton) and plans were on to get a mate for it. However the story goes that initially the Rhino was to be released back into the MP forests to let it integrete with the jungle and find its own mate. Easier said than done since its horn had long gone and Rhino minus a horn may not just repulse the ladeez but make it vulnerable in a fight. Incidentally, the animal I have been referring to as the Hippo in the earlier paras was a Rhino (I am reasonably sure). For one, it looked like one. For another it had a big stub on its nose where a horn would have existed earlier. However, the cage said 'Hippopotamus' and I am sticking to the official version. Judge for yourselves.